The Iowa Hawkeyes, Indiana Hoosiers and Nebraska Cornhuskers

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When the newly revamped and misnamed Big Ten Conference begins athletic play in the fall of 2011, the twelve school conference will have at least eight schools with unique, or somewhat unique, athletic nicknames – Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, and Penn State. Here are the stories behind three of them.

The University of Iowa Hawkeyes

In 1826 James Fenimore Cooper wrote a popular frontier novel called The Last of the Mohicans. One of the book’s major characters, Natty Bumppo, was a white hunter and scout raised by the Mohican Indians. Because of his sharp shooting skills, he was nicknamed Hawkeye by a rival tribe.

A dozen years after the book’s publication, lawyer David Rorer encouraged James Edwards, the newspaper editor of the Fort Madison Patriot, to promote the fictional character’s name as a description for the residents of the soon to be created Iowa Territory. Edwards’ promotional efforts in his paper paid off when territorial officials met and formally agreed to the idea. When Iowa became a state, the name became the official state nickname.

Forty years later when the state university in Iowa City began competing in intercollegiate athletics, its teams were called both the Cornhuskers and the Hawkeyes, but by 1900 the latter name prevailed and has never been seriously challenged. In 1945 Herky the Hawk, an impish black and gold bird created by journalism instructor Richard Spencer III, became the school’s mascot.

The Indiana University Hoosiers

In similar manner to the Hawkeyes of Iowa, the name Hoosiers long predates the school in Bloomington. But unlike the former, the origin of the name has been the subject of much debate. Among the many theories:

Early Indiana settlers, wary of strangers, would always ask “Who’s there?” when hearing approaching footsteps. According to this theory, this question corrupted into “hoosiers.” An interesting idea, but not too likely.

An early canal or road contractor named either Samuel or Robert Hoosier preferred using workers from Indiana because of their industrious natures. These workers were called “Hoosier’s men” and then simply “Hoosiers.” Again an interesting theory, but there is no evidence that a Samuel or Robert Hoosier (or name with similar spelling) ever operated in Indiana.

The name Hoosier was originally a derogatory term used in the South to describe a backwoodsman or rustic and may trace back to England and France where the terms “hoozer” and “osier” have similar meanings. This is a credible theory as many early Indiana settlers came from Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

Regardless of origin, The Hoosier State has been the official nickname of Indiana since the mid-1800s and, as far as can be determined, Hoosiers is the only name ever used by Indiana University athletic teams. Indiana is also one of the few universities or colleges without a mascot. Instead, the cream and crimson IU logo is the symbol for the school.

The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers

In the 1890s athletic teams from the University of Nebraska were known as the Old Gold Knights, Antelopes, and then Bugeaters. Then in 1900 Lincoln sportswriter Charles Sherman, who would later become one of the founders of the Associated Press Football Poll, looked for a new nickname for the university.

He had always liked a name that was used occasionally by Iowa University – the Cornhuskers – feeling that it reflected the state’s agricultural ties and was not as subject to ridicule as Bugeaters. By 1900, when it was obvious that the school from the neighboring state had settled on Hawkeyes, Sherman began referring to the University teams as the Cornhuskers.

The new name soon caught on with other sportswriters, citizens, university officials, and sports fans. So much so, that in 1945 the Nebraska legislature made “The Cornhusker State” Nebraska’s official nickname. It’s an ironic name in a way since the state raises more wheat and cattle than corn.

Nebraska mascots have changed over the years. Early ones usually resembled an ear of corn, but in 1974 a character named Herbie Husker was born and is now the official mascot. Evolving over the years, Herbie is a muscular man wearing work boots, jeans, a red flannel shirt, and red cowboy hat. In 1993 he picked up a sidekick in Lil’ Red, a likeable little creature in scarlet coveralls and a scarlet baseball cap turned sideways.

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